Australia is now hailed as having one of the world’s most developed and sophisticated coffee cultures, and not without good reason. Australia benefitted hugely in the post-Second World War period from a huge influx of migrants from Europe, among them, many thousands of Italians, who set up cafés right around the country and introduced European coffee culture. From this, slowly but surely, an appreciation of coffee and a skilful artistry in roasting, preparing and serving it has grown, something which would never have occurred had Australia remained an Anglo-Celtic monoculture. It took a long time, and there were many mishaps along the way, but here, now, in the 21st century, Australia is truly a coffee powerhouse, exporting both its artistry and coffee styles to the world.
Yet, whilst very excellent coffee, very well made can be found with relative ease, it’s not that uncommon still to stumble upon a pissweak, milky latte, a bitter flat white, or a foamy, not silky, cappuccino. To make a somewhat random comparison, the quality of Australian coffee is certainly up there with that of Rome, yet its consistency is lacking. During eight different visits to Rome over the years, including living there for four months in 2003, I don’t ever recall being disappointed by the quality of Roman coffee. Being a bit of a “milkdrinker”, I always tended to order either macchiato or cappuccino, which is roughly on a par with what I drink in Australia and so makes a good comparison. In Australia I drink macchiato or latté, but the latter is roughly the equivalent of the Roman cappuccino, which is far creamier on top and blended more evenly into the subsurface ocean of coffee, rather than floating on top like a rough, spongy scum, which is sadly, all too often my experience of Australian cappuccinos. It’s probably worth considering that, according to my mother, in the 1950s, she and her peers referred to a cappuccino as a “frothy coffee”. Perhaps the newly arrived Italian migrants thought Australians would drink their coffee if it looked more like beer, which an Australian cappuccino can often resemble. And, yeah, I get the whole chocolate on top thing, but it seems a bit of a clumsy ruse in all honesty. Is this the reason why we are really a nation of flat white drinkers? Because the cappuccinos aren’t actually that great, and the flat white is, in fact, more akin to the Roman cappuccino – a superior and silkier coffee.
Whilst nations overseas are now embracing the Australian flat white, it is for me, the Australian latté which deserves the most praise. Done properly, it can be a masterpiece – creamy on top and smoothly potent underneath, yet with the transition from the surface being soft and never too abrupt, hot or bitter. The elements should be both in juxtaposition and harmony, which, texturally, to put it into gelato terms, feels more like the slide between hazelnut and dark chocolate than say, going from lemon to fudge. It is not heavy, but light. It begins like dessert, but ends refreshingly.
Until recently I felt quite confident that I could get a great latté most places I went in Australia. Yet, lately, there have been whispers of discontent with the latté. I myself have suffered the indignity of such offenses as boiled milk; a pissweak and milky blend; frothy rather than creamy surface; low-fat milk when it wasn’t asked for (the difference, texturally and taste-wise is vast); and overly hot, thin coffee. On a recent visit to Brisbane, despite buying coffee on five different occasions, in five different locations, not one of them got the latté right. It was a disastrous mix of over-milky, watery, overheated second-rate gruel, and not the whole porridge once. I mean, the coffee was drinkable, and I drank it, but I never really enjoyed it, which is surely just as important, if not more so, than satisfying the chronic caffeine dependency which drives most of the developed world’s economies and societies. I just hope that Australian coffee hasn’t already peaked, and a decline set in, born of our seemingly innate complacency. Please, for all our sakes, don’t let it slide.